How a chance encounter led me to change professions and launch Industrial Economist.
In 1962, a chance encounter with publisher Krishna Srinivas, a poet of considerable merit, changed my destiny. KSri, as we called him, published a hand-composed journal titled Indian Industries. The magazine fascinated me and I offered to help with it pro bono. After a few visits, I was so hooked that I told him I would leave my job at the Madras Christian College and manage both his press and the magazine.
Soon trouble erupted in paradise. Within weeks of taking over, I sacked the orderly. The owner wasn’t too pleased and gently nudged me to start my own magazine. The idea appealed to me and I chose to focus on transportation and launched Mobile.
Going MOBILE five decades ago
I bought a circular ticket on the Indian Railways. For Rs. 75, the card allowed me to travel for 45 days as long as I did not retrace the route, and the total distance covered was at least three times the farthest point. The itinerary needed some creative planning, but I worked it out. I leveraged various family members for local stays, so my total cost for the Bharat Darshan was less than Rs.200!
Two years later, in 1964, I founded two other trade magazines for two-wheelers: Trade Wheel in English and Cycle Seidhi in Tamil. Then Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam released the former at a function presided by A M M Murugappa Chettiar. Business leaders heading the TVS Group Simpsons, Ashok Leyland and the Murugappa Group lent support in running these magazines.
That same year, I, then 26-years old, came upon a unique opportunity: Seshadri was a sales manager in New Delhi for
PanAm. When I approached him for ads, he hedged. So I offered to trade advertisement space for PanAm for a roundtrip air ticket to Europe. He accepted, and released 12 advertisements through the year for a ticket to Europe.
The Press Bureau of German Industry in India offered me the chance to visit the six German companies that built the Rourkela Steel Plant. I supplemented this with a week-long invitation from the German government to look at Daimler Benz, Bosch, Volkswagen, the Hanover Fair…
H B Stanford, Director, Simpsons helped me access the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, London, through his friend at British Leyland. A two-week programme provided the opportunity to look at a dozen auto units. I gathered I was the first non-European journalist to have been provided such a lavish facility.
But the Reserve Bank of India would not let me go easily; for weeks I battled with the Exchange Control Department. Finally on a Saturday afternoon, the Manager – ECD took pity and issued an allowance of 3.5 pounds (around Rs.45) of foreign exchange. I rushed to Delhi Sunday morning, collected the tickets and boarded the flight in the early hours on Monday! The lavish programme provided me my first exposure to the manufacturing industry and the economies of the booming postwar Germany and UK.
I contrasted it against our industrial units with limited capacities: three Indian automobile units together were producing 20,000 cars a year; the Volkswagen plant at Wolfsburg alone produced 6200 cars a day! I decided to expand my focus to a wider arena.
IE is Born
At that time there were three well-established economic journals: Capital (Calcutta), Commerce (Bombay) and Eastern Economist (Delhi). Madras lacked one. I felt the rapid industrialisation experienced by the south needed one. I opted to launch Industrial Economist (IE) as a fortnightly and phase out my three trade journals. TN Industry Minister V R Nedunchezhiyan released IE on 15 March1968.
IE pioneered the concept of special issues on landmark events. The first such was for Madras Refineries in September 1969. This was followed by ones on Indian Oil Lube Blending Plant, CIPET, South India Viscose, Lakshmi Mills, Sakthi Finance, Ashok Leyland, TIDEL Park, Saint Gobain, L&T ECC, SPIC, NTPC, BHEL-Tiruchi, to name a few. How can we forget the extraordinary supplements that were released at the laying of the foundation stones by Indira Gandhi for the three southern steel plants at Salem (15 September 1970), Visakhapatnam (20 January 1970) and Vijayanagar (15 October 1972)?
Several of these won us gratifying business, rewards and recognition. Ashok Leyland bought 85,000 copies of our special cover story for reaching their shareholders, vendors, dealers… The best related to Sakthi Finance, when S N Pai, Executive Chairman, found our story so impressive, that he ordered 255,000 reprints, and used it to mobilise public deposits for his company.
We even provided translated versions of our supplements in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. For several years there was not a single major event in the south without an IE special issue!
IE has since covered the economies of several states and major projects extensively on invitations from the chief ministers. These included Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa and the Punjab.
Early years were nurtured by tender hands
In the early years, young talents like P S Ramamurti (my schoolmate and a renowned Sanskrit scholar) and S Naryanan (my younger brother) managed advertising. K S Sankaran, (earlier with The Hindu) was our business representative in Mumbai who ensured IE got included in the major advertisement campaigns of several advertisers. He worked with us till his demise in the 1980s. While the industry-owned rich economic journals of other regions were on the wane, IE marched towards growth.
With R Venkataraman as the Minister of Industry, it was a golden period for the automobile industry. Chennai was witnessing a nithya kalyanam. Powered by Ashok Leyland, Standard Motors and TAFE, ancillary and small engineering units were sprouting in quick succession. Under the lead of T S Srinivasan, Padi, a western suburb of Chennai, was rapidly transforming into a prized auto component cluster. I still remember covering the inauguration of Wheels India in 1962 followed in quick intervals by Sundaram Clayton, Brakes India and Lucas TVS.
Companies that enjoyed good custom through trading took to manufacturing. There were also attractive investments in the public sector. The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) was set up to produce rail coaches with Swiss collaboration. The state witnessed handsome investments at Neyveli. At Tiruchi, the BHEL set up boiler and other heavy power equipment plants. At Avadi came the Heavy Vehicles Factory. More public sector investments poured in through Madras Refineries (now CPCL) and Madras Fertilizers, with help from the state’s development corporations.
Tying journalism with wider interests, social concerns
In the 1970s, I took an active interest in professional associations like the Advertising Club, the Printers and Lithographers Association, Periodicals Association, the Public Relations Society of India (PRSI), MMA… My involvement in these helped in expanding contacts and keeping abreast of practices in different professions.
During 1969-70, along with S Vasudevan of Economic Times, T K Thiagarajan of Indian Express, Nair of Malayala Manorama, I worked to set up the Madras Press Club. We elected Murasoli Maran as President. Chief Minister M Karunanidhi formally inaugurated the club.
I have been attending the annual Economic Editors’ Conferences organised by the Press Information Bureau without a break since 1973. The EECs provided the opportunity to interact with finance ministers, other economic ministers, and senior civil servants. It also helped me build friends across the journalistic fraternity. I worked to get periodicals eligible for press accreditation.
As Secretary-General of the Madras Press Club, I presented a series of interactive sessions with renowned leaders at the Club. Prime Minister Morarji Desai was our guest in what was the first and only occasion when a prime minister addressed the MPC.
An ardent admirer of Ralph Nader, I was later inspired by consumer activist Manubhai Shah of Consumer Education Research Centre (CERC). I met the doyen of legal industry Govind Swaminathan and requested him to lend his support for forming a body like CERC with lawyers and chartered accountants spearheading the movement. His junior, Sriram Panchu, who was present when I presented the issue and the plan, set up the Consumer Action Group. Along with R Desikan, I continued to evince interest on consumer issues.
I followed up Desikan’s report on widespread adulteration of petrol and diesel in Chennai with a cover story and suggested the large oil marketing companies should be made accountable. Leading lawyer
K Vijayan took up the issue that resulted in the cancellation of licences to several petrol bunks in Chennai.
In later years, IE began looking closely at issues concerning agriculture, visiting agricultural universities and farms in different parts of the country and abroad. These efforts resulted in setting up the Agriculture Consultancy Management Foundation (ACMF) as a not-for-profit trust and involved several eminent leaders as trustees. A demo farm was set up by ACMF to work on improving productivity by taking recourse to science, technology and mechanisation.
Fighting a 25-year (lone) battle for the south
In the 1970s crude oil production began at Bombay High, 100 km off the west coast. It was a great opportunity to visit the large oil platforms of ONGC erected for deep sea drilling. Over a day I hopped from platform to ship, from ship to platform and gained some insights into the remarkable work done by ONGC.
In the late 1980s the Hazira-Bijaipur-Jagdishpur (HBJ) gas pipeline was constructed to transport gas from the Bombay High fields to feed six fertilizer plants, three power plants and three LPG fractionation plants in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. This marked the shift of fertilizer production capacity from the south to the west and the north. I raised the issue with Union ministers Murasoli Maran and M S Gurupadaswamy and demanded a share of this gas for south. But this could not be done then.
I continued this battle over the next 25 years. When gas from the Reliance gas fields in the Krishna-Godavari basin peaked to 60 million cubic metres per day in 2009, I met Chief Minister of Kerala, V S Achuthanandan, Deputy CM Stalin of Tamil Nadu and also wrote to the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and requested them to ensure getting a fair share of production allotted to the south. IE organised a seminar in December 2009 in which business leaders and specialists participated. Over three months we also carried a campaign in association with the Tamil daily
Dinamalar. I also reached out to 58 MPs of Tamil Nadu who in turn raised the issue in the Parliament.
In January 2010 the bill was passed to set up a national gas grid assuring supply of gas through pipeline in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south and the eastern and central Indian states.
The expertise of IE was sought and utilised by different government institutions. In the early days, we prepared a report for the Corporation of Chennai for expanding tax revenues of the corporation. As a consultant to CMDA and the Times Research Foundation for the Madras 2011 project, IE recommended 100 km of surface rail and 100 km of underground metro rail as lasting solutions to address Chennai’s traffic problems. While Tamil Nadu slept over this, under E Sreedharan Delhi raced to set up the Metro Rail .
Public Limited Company…
IE celebrated its silver jubilee in March 1993 with the participation of President R Venkataraman, elder statesman C Subramaniam, TN Governor Bhishma Narain Singh, T N Minister V R Nedunchezhiyan, Dr. Malcolm Adiseshiah and Dr. M S Swaminathan… M S Subbulakshmi rendered the invocation. The first IE Business Excellence Award, instituted as part of this celebration to applaud excellence on the part of a southern corporate, was presented to Lakshmi Machine Works, Coimbatore.
At the Silver Jubilee I announced the plan to convert the business into a public incorporated company with wider participation. Mumbai picked up the message and an eager investor, Ajay Agarwal, visited Chennai and also sounded Enam Financial services. Its head Vallabh Bhansali dropped in at the IE office and spent a couple of hours with us. I remember his working out details on a tissue paper at Hotel Saravana Bhavan over a plate of dosa! In my subsequent visit to Mumbai, he accepted my request for a premium of Rs.10 on a Rs.10 share.
He didn’t even look at my finances nor bothered to verify the status of my property. After the deal, I innocuously asked him: “You are going to invest Rs.75 lakh on my word. How are you convinced that I am not a crook?” His reply was classic: “I have been admiring your critical reports on several corporates for a few years. I firmly believe you are a conscientious person. I am confident you’ll work even harder to work for me.” And then added: “Business is all about taking risks. Some decisions do go wrong. But that is business.” Vallabh’s words turned out to be prophetic: I did work harder to redeem the trust of the investors and my Board of Directors.
Several well-known public figures like K R Ramamani and Dr. M Anandakrishnan, were Directors in the board of Economist Communications Ltd (ECL). Today the Board consists of R Thyagarajan of Shriram Group, S V Mony, former Chairman, General Insurance Corporation of India and former CMD, New India Assurance Company, P Vaidyanathan, Managing Director, Integrated Enterprises (India) Ltd and A S Narayana Rao, Correspondent, Jawahar Group of Educational Institutions – all non executives, non investors and two wholetime Directors V Padma & Myself. These lend us strength through their expert advice and ensure credibility and accountability.
During 2001-02 we built the Economist House as a commercial building with design inputs from the eminent architects C R Narayana Rao Sons and constructed by L&T ECC. A Ramakrishna of L&T and S P Gupta-R Natarajan of IOB helped turn my dream into reality. The new premises, inaugurated by then TN Governor
P S Ramamohan Rao in the presence of TN Finance Minister C Ponnaiyan, lent precious strength to our finances.
Changing with the times…
Over these 50 years, newspaper economics has changed. There has been increasing reliance on advertisements as the primary source of revenue. Competition from the electronic media has resulted in much of the advertising drying up for the print medium. Led by The Times of India, price wars have resulted in dailies being offered at as low as a rupee, less than the value realised even selling it as waste!
Today large newspapers have a much greater degree of dependence on government advertisements than earlier. Small, specialised magazines with limited circulation suffer grievously. Distant Delhi is inaccessible, despite the 15 per cent allocation claimed to be allotted to small papers. The budgets at the state level are also allocated on political considerations. Tamil Nadu government, for instance, doesn’t have any allocation for periodicals. This makes specialised publications increasingly endangered.
Today corporate advertising for the print medium has dwindled. To retain the falling share, newspapers are wary of critical, objective reports on corporate misdemeanours. The ambiguous laws on defamation also make publications vulnerable to face the wrath of large corporates. IE waged an 11-year long legal battle to uphold its right to be critical of corporate misdemeanours and failures. In fact, the landmark judgments won by IE have ensured precious protection to the journalists to be critical of corporate shenanigans.
Right from our inception, we defined Industrial Economist’s mission as the expansion of awareness on economic issues and we have been actively advocating changes and solutions through persistent efforts in different for . My national and international experiences have helped sharpen these efforts. And experts from different sectors have been graciously lending their support that has sustained IE. I salute them for their support all through these golden years.